In 2007, Dirk Nowitzki became the first European-born player to be named MVP of the NBA.
After this season, don't be surprised if Giannis Antetokounmpo becomes the second.
Antetokounmpo is already in the MVP discussion. With tidy averages of 26.9 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks per game, the Milwaukee Bucks forward finished sixth in MVP voting last season, trailing Russell Westbrook in fifth place by only one point. Through six games in 2018-19, Antetokounmpo is averaging 25.0 points, 14.2 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 1.7 blocks per contest.
Antetokounmpo faces some stiff competition this season in Westbrook, James Harden, LeBron James and Anthony Davis - plus the likes of Damian Lillard, Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant - but there are three reasons to believe he will finish ahead of them all by the end of 2018-19.
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From Antetokounmpo being a matchup nightmare to where Milwaukee now stands in the Eastern Conference post-free agency, let's take a look at each of them in detail.
Antetokounmpo is a complete scorer
Antetokounmpo has improved each year he's been in the NBA, to the point where he's already one of the league's most dominant offensive players.
Built like a big man with the skills of a guard, Antetokounmpo shines in the open court. Not only did he score the second-most points per game in transition last season, the two-time All-Star ranked in the 70.3 percentile in efficiency with an average of 1.20 points per possession. Power forwards and centers simply don't have the speed to keep up with him in those situations, and guards don't have the size to slow him down when he gets close to the basket.
The combination makes him a LeBron-like force on the fast break.
Those same tools help Antetokounmpo when the game slows down. He's constantly improving as an isolation and post scorer, giving him the versatility to create his own shot against bigger and smaller players off the dribble. Most of those drives end with him getting to the basket, where he attempted more shots on a per-game basis than anyone else in the league last season.
It doesn't matter if defenders back off of him, either. Antetokounmpo will use the space to gain a running start or he'll close the gap by turning his back to the basket, even when he's being guarded by the biggest and strongest players in the league. His blend of strength, size and athleticism is something that can only be matched by - you guessed it - LeBron.
Now that Jabari Parker is in Chicago, Antetokounmpo should have even more opportunities to create for himself and others this season.
Antetokounmpo also knows how to use his length to make himself a scoring threat when he doesn't have the ball in his hands. He ranked near the top of the league in scoring off of cuts last season, and he scores a decent amount of his points off of rolls and putbacks at high levels of efficiency. Those parts of his game should only improve in Mike Budenholzer's system, which is built on player and ball movement.
The only part missing in Antetokounmpo's game is a consistent jump shot, though the moves the Bucks made in the summer should make that less of an issue moving forward...
The Bucks made smart additions this offseason
Antetokounmpo's inability to space the floor gave opponents something they could target in the past, but it will be far more difficult for them to coax him into taking inefficient jump shots after the summer the Bucks have had. Whereas Milwaukee gave minutes to Tyler Zeller, Marshall Plumlee, Greg Monroe and John Henson at center last season - four players who have combined to make 11 3-pointers in their NBA careers - they'll now have the option of pairing Antetokounmpo with two of the best shooting big men in the league in Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez.
More than a third of Ilyasova's shot attempts last season were made up of catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, and he made 38.9 percent of those opportunities. Lopez was in a similar bracket, with those looks representing close to half of his shot attempts on the season and him converting them at a 34.3 percent clip.
With one of them at center and the other at power forward, as well as two of Eric Bledsoe, Tony Snell, Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon and Matthew Dellavedova in the backcourt, it will be more difficult for teams to get away with this sort of defence against Antetokounmpo:
It should, in fact, make the Bucks unstoppable.
According to Jacob Goldstein's Lineup Predictor, a lineup of Bledsoe, Middleton, Antetokounmpo, Ilyasova and Lopez projects to score at a rate of 123.2 points per 100 possessions, which would've made them one of the most efficient 5-man units in the league last season. It spits out a similar number even when you replace Bledsoe with Brogdon or Middleton with Snell.
It's easy to see why, too. All it'll take to draw defenders out of the paint is one of those players making a couple of wide open 3-pointers set up by Antetokounmpo. His assist numbers took a slight dip in 2017-18, but Antetokounmpo still finished the season behind only six forwards in potential assists per game. By simplifying his reads, he could see his scoring and passing numbers jump in ways similar to how Harden's did when the Houston Rockets surrounded him with players who complemented his strengths in 2016-17.
If so, that would leave Milwaukee's record as the only thing standing between The Greek Freak and his first MVP trophy...
The East is (relatively) open
The biggest knock against Antetokounmpo's MVP case last season was Milwaukee's record. Even though they were 9.0 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court - basically the difference between winning and losing on a nightly basis - the Bucks finished with a 44-39 record. It was enough for them to make the playoffs, and yet not enough for them to compete for homecourt advantage in the weaker Eastern Conference.
The free agent acquisitions they made this offseason and more of the same from Antetokounmpo should make the Bucks much more competitive next season.
It helps that LeBron James has moved to the Western Conference. While the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers are expected to benefit the most from LeBron's departure, the Bucks will be fighting for a top-four seed with the Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat and Washington Wizards. There were only five games separating the best and worst of those teams by the end of last season, and only the Pacers had an offseason comparable to the Bucks.
If Antetokounmpo stakes his claim as the best player in the Eastern Conference and Milwaukee distances itself from the Pacers, Heat and Wizards, he could join Nowitzki in the history books this season.
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